In France, Poverty Travels

In the Métro stations and the streets of Paris, it’s easy to sense the anxiety and irritation of passers-by when they encounter a Roma woman carrying a baby in her arms or holding a little girl by the hand and asking plaintively for a few coins. In August, however, the French government — attacked on all sides after the political and financial scandals of the summer — decided to take cynical advantage of this shameful sentiment: President Nicolas Sarkozy began to condemn criminals of “foreign origin”; hundreds of Roma encampments were violently razed; and more than 1,000 of the 20,000 Roma in France were deported.

While most cultural and ethnic minorities have become visible here, the Roma remain obscure; indeed, many of the French still confuse these Roma — who have been driven by poverty from their villages in Romania and Bulgaria since the 1990s — with gypsies. This means that the Roma have been endowed with the romantic aura of the performers in old traveling carnivals and of bohemians; from Mérimée to Hugo, gypsies have been emblematic of freedom and adventure and proud beauty. It also means that they have been saddled with the urban myths of gypsies as thieves, sellers of pots and pans, organized beggars with their children in rags but driving Mercedeses, stereotypes that the president of the republic himself has repeated.

These Roma have become second-class citizens of the European Union, able to travel freely within the union’s borders but, because of the “transitional” nature of their civil status, allowed to stay in other countries for only three months at a time. They are thus condemned to working off the books and to begging, building temporary shelters and living on vacant lots or in empty buildings that become little slums. They are constantly exposed to the threat of expulsion. And like Sisyphus, they are pushed back to their country of origin, simply to return, legally, to France — just as unwanted at home as they are here.

The French politicians who pushed for this free-market Europe have forgotten that if you want wealth and capital to cross borders, you have to accept the fact that the poverty of others becomes yours as well. Like the people in the subway who are irritated by the reminder of this truth, the French government and most of the neighboring states have made the Roma the perfect scapegoats for the failure of their imagination: a Europe that is white, rich and impenetrable, where the Roma are the pariahs.

Tristán García, the author of Hate: A Romance. This article was translated by The Times from the French.

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